Eating out remembered

SEEING A PHOTO TAKEN  of La Cage Imaginaire, a restaurant in Hampstead has whet my appetite for writing about some memories of eating in this picturesque part of London long before the current restrictions on individuals’ movements and public gatherings.

COLIN BLOG

My parents used to like dining out at a ‘bistro’ in Church Row, a street lined with lovely old houses. The Cellier du Midi, as its name suggests was in a basement. Long before my mother died in 1980, they dined there often. My sister and I were never taken there. This made me curious about the place and for many years after they stopped going there, I thought it would be fun to try it out. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that I did. My father’s teacher at the University of Cape Town, and later his colleague at the London School of Economics, Professor William Baxter (1906-2006) and his wife invited my wife and me to have dinner at the Cellier. It was Baxter, who in 1938 encouraged my father’s family to send him to England to continue his studies. I was excited about the prospect of eating in this restaurant at long last. Sadly, by the time we were invited there, the food was far from exceptional. It was far below the quality that would have been acceptable to my late mother, a discerning eater.

My parents ate Indian food occasionally. Their favourite Indian restaurant was the Shahbag in Rosslyn Hill, the continuation of Hampstead High Street. I ate enjoyably there once or twice with friends in the early 1970s but did not return for over 30 years. One evening, we drove up to Hampstead to attend a concert in a church on Rosslyn Hill. We arrived just before the performance was scheduled to start. I was driving. I dropped my wife and a friend at the venue, and then looked for somewhere to park. It took so long for me to find somewhere that I had to miss much of the concert. As the concert was near to the Shahbag and I was also hungry, I decided to miss the music and make a nostalgic trip to the Indian restaurant. I sat down and placed an order. Then, I waited and waited. While I was waiting, I looked at the food being delivered to customers on neighbouring tables. It did not look too appetising; by now, having visited India many times and eaten Indian food cooked in many Indians’ homes, I could distinguish between well and poorly prepared dishes. My appetite diminished. I looked at the time. It was nearly time to collect the rest of my party from the concert. I summoned the waiter and told him that as I was not prepared to wait any longer, he must cancel the order, which he did. I was disappointed that this experience had shattered my nostalgic illusions about this venerable establishment.

After my mother died, I began practising dentistry in a village near Gillingham in Kent. I lived down there during the week and visited my father most weekends. On Sundays, my father and I usually ate lunch out, often in Hampstead. One of our favoured places was the Cage Imaginaire, a tiny French restaurant at the end of Flask Walk furthest from Hampstead High Street. I always associate this restaurant’s name with that of a humorous film, “La Cage aux Folles”, which appeared in 1978. However, the restaurant was/still is a serious eating place. On one occasion when the waiter brought the cheese trolley to our table, I cheekily asked him to point out the cheese whose odour most resembled that of smelly socks. Without batting an eyelid or showing any disdain, he singled out a satisfyingly pungent French cheese.

Gradually, my father and I shifted our allegiance to an Italian restaurant, the Villa Bianca in Perrins Court. Although pricey, the food at this eatery never failed to satisfy. My father, whose mastery of the Italian language is good, enjoyed chatting with the Italian owner and his staff.

During my student days, all twelve years of them, I lived at my family home north of Hampstead, but visited it often. One place in which my parents would never have set foot but was popular with my friends and I was Maxwell’s on Heath Street.  This was Hampstead’s take on the American eating experience. Just up the street from the Pizza Express, Maxwell’s sold good hamburgers and milkshakes. Popular with more than one generation of northwest London’s younger set, this place opened in the 1970s and closed more than 40 years later. Incidentally, Maxwell’s pre-dated the arrival of McDonalds in London.

Almost across the road from Maxwell’s there was and still is a good Japanese restaurant, Jin Kichi, at which I ate several times more than 20 years ago. This was the first place I ever ate sukiyaki, a dish that involves cooking raw meat on a hot plate on the dining table.  Writing about this brings to mind another place, which was not strictly in Hampstead but close by in Swiss Cottage: Benihana.

I have only eaten at a Benihana restaurant once and that was long ago when the girl, who is now my wife, celebrated her birthday at the Swiss Cottage branch. We sat at counters surrounding an open space where our chef cooked, or rather performed, our meal. The chef would pick up a prawn, place it on a hot grill, and then toss it high up in the air, catch it, before placing it back on the grill. This performance of flinging food items up into the air and putting them on and off the grill was impressive in terms of juggling skills but disappointing as a gastronomic technique. By the time a much travelled, burnt, dead acrobatic prawn arrived on my plate, it had lost any appeal for me. However, a good time was had by all, except the prawns and other fragments of food we were served.

Returning to Hampstead proper, there is one restaurant that has been in existence since 1962. This is La Gaffe, which is on the same side of Heath Street as Jin Kichi, but higher up the hill. Although I have passed this place countless numbers of times, I have never entered it.

Heath Street leads down to Hampstead Underground Station and the start of Hampstead High Street. Despite vociferous objections from many of Hampstead’s ‘snobbish’ and ‘cultured’ residents, McDonalds managed to open a branch of their famous fast-food operation a few feet away from the station. It took the company twelve years to fight the objections to their opening.  Although I enjoy ‘haute cuisine’, I have the occasional yearning for a meal at Mcdonalds. The Hampstead branch was perfectly acceptable. However, after 20 years business in Hampstead, the company closed its branch there in 2013. It has been replaced by a branch of another chain, Le Pain Quotidien. I preferred its predecessor.

The Coffee Cup in Hampstead Heath Street is almost as old as I am. It first opened in 1954. Both externally and internally, this has not changed in appearance since my early childhood. When I was at school in the 1960s, this was the place to ‘hang out’. Oddly, I never did. In those days, the café had an exciting reputation. Maybe, I was not exciting enough to pay it a visit. Recently, I have ventured into this relic of the coffee bar era of Hampstead. I enjoyed a satisfactory, but not top class, espresso in its quaint interior, which looks as if it retains the original decor that it had when it first opened. I did not eat anything there, but I watched delicious looking pastries and English Breakfasts being served to other customers. Oozing with nostalgia, this place is as popular now as it was long ago.

Walk up either Perrins Court or Perrins Lane, and you will reach the southern part of Heath Street just before it continues to become Fitzjohns Avenue. On that short stretch of road, stands Louis Hungarian Patisserie. It was opened in 1963 by a Hungarian called Louis Permayer. Like the Coffee Cup, Louis has retained its original appearance. However, although it began as a place purveying Hungarian pastries and cakes, its current owners provide similar items, but not quite as tasty as what the former owner sold. That said, it is a quaint place to sit and chat over a hot beverage and a snack.

Louis has a special place in my memory. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I met one of my fellow students for a date one afternoon at Louis. My female friend liked the place and we have visited often since she became my wife some years after that afternoon. She recalls that in those long off days when we first met, Louis served coffee with a separate small bowl of whipped cream. Sadly, that tradition has disappeared and the charming Eastern European waitresses now working at the café look uncomprehendingly when you try to get a bowl of this with your coffee.

As soon as it is safe to roam around without risking one’s health excessively, we will head to Hampstead for a not brilliant but romantically nostalgic coffee at Louis, provided it has weathered the pandemic.

 

Photo of La Cage Imaginaire by Colin Hill

 

Saturday night feeder

BRUGES 65 BLOG

MY LATE MOTHER trained at the Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. She became a commercial artist. After she married my father in London in early 1948, she became a more creative artist, a painter and then a sculptor. Her interest in art was shared by my father, who became deeply interested in the history of art. Most of our family holidays were connected with my parents’ enthusiasm for art both old and new. I used to be quite envious of my friends whose parents took them to the seaside, but now that I am older I appreciate the special nature of our family holidays.

One of the places my parents enjoyed visiting was Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium.  We used to stay in the city’s Hotel Portinari. Once every visit, we did something that I found more enjoyable than visiting churches and museums. We took a boat ride along the city’s canals. These tours involved travelling in a small low boat powered by an outboard motor. The most exciting part of this voyage was when we passed beneath a particularly low road bridge. The tour guide would tell us all to duck our heads. My mother, who saw danger around every corner, always  emphasised how important it was to lower our heads as much as possible to avoid them being smashed to a pulp by the metal struts under which we were passing. In retrospect, considering the potential for experiencing this awful injury (possibly leading to death), I am amazed that my mother sanctioned these boat trips every time we visited Bruges.

My mother passed away, I married and in 1995 our daughter was born. Six weeks after her birth, we crossed the English Channel and we took our daughter with us. We were driving to Rotterdam in Holland to meet my wife’s parents, who were disembarking there after a cruise on the River Rhine.

We wanted to spend a night in Bruges on our way to Holland, but were unable to find accommodation in a hotel that we could afford. Instead, we booked a hotel at nearby Damme, which was said to be picturesque.

We arrived at our hotel in Damme on a Saturday afternoon. I remember that we had trouble getting hot water to flow in our shower. However much the hot tap was turned, the water remained icy cold. The problem was solved when a member of the hotel staff explained that the taps had been labelled wrongly: hot water flowed when the cold tap was opened.

 In the evening, the three of us went to a restaurant in Damme. The dining room was a long rectangle in plan. A long central ‘aisle’ ran between two lines of tables. Each table was occupied by late middle-aged couples sitting  with their backs to the walls and facing the diners seated opposite them across the aisle. Not one of these people looked as if they were enjoying their night out, or even being alive. They were a miserable looking bunch.

We were shown to the one remaining empty table. Within minutes of sitting down, our daughter decided that she needed a drink, not of Belgian beer but something that only wife could supply.

My wife asked the maitre d’hôtel whether there was somewhere that she could breastfeed our daughter discreetly. He pointed at a door. My wife stood up and walked towards it. Before she reached it, the hitherto seemingly moribund diners sprang to life. They told us that they did not mind if our daughter suckled in the dining room. They did not want mother and child to be exiled, or even self-exiled.

For the rest of the evening, our fellow diners remained animated, exclaiming how sweet our daughter was and offering much advice. Our arrival and our daughter, in particular, had made that Saturday evening a huge success for these ageing members of Damme’s  bourgeoisie.

 

Picture of the Minnewater in Bruges, taken in the early 1960s

 

The Gay Hussar

THE USAGE OF THE WORD ‘GAY’ to refer to same sex relationships dates back to the 1960s.

Before this time, back in 1953, Victor Sassie opened a Hungarian restaurant in Greek Street in London’s Soho district. It closed a few years ago in 2018.

Apart from serving Hungarian specialities, the Gay Hussar was a popular meeting place for politicians.

My father was often invited to meet his colleague, friend, and occasional co-author the Hungarian born (Lord) Peter Bauer at the Gay Hussar. Dad was not too keen on the fare at the restaurant because he found it too rich and a bit heavy. I only ate there once. I thought that the cooking in Hungary was better than that on offer in Greek Street.

The Gay Hussar was not the only Hungarian eatery in Soho. The other was Csarda in Dean Street. This closed long before the Gay Hussar. It is one of my few minor regrets that I was never able to eat at the Csarda.

The ‘unearthing’ of an ashtray from the Gay Hussar is what prompted me to write about this no longer existing restaurant.

A powerful smell

Years ago, before the Berlin Wall was breached in 1989, I was visiting Budapest in Hungary with my friend the author, the late Michael Jacobs (he wrote Budapest, A Cultural Guide, published in 1998). We decided to eat dinner in a large restaurant called the Kárpátia, which was founded in 1877 and is one of the city’s longest surviving eateries.

cheese

The dining hall was very spacious. Its decor is Victorian Gothic revival. Diners are serenaded by a small band. As far as I can remember we ate well, as was often the case in Communist Hungary. One could enjoy the restaurants in Budapest if you were a western tourist, but for most Hungarians, who were low paid, eating in fancy restaurants was way beyond their means.  I remember eating a magnificent lunch at another restaurant and paying less than £5 for a gargantuan spread. When I told my Hungarian hosts that I had been to that place to eat, they could not believe that I was able to afford it. I was going to tell them what good value it was, but held my tongue.

At the end of the meal at the Kárpátia , I decided to try a cheese, which I had never heard of  and was on the menu. It was called Pálpusztai. I ordered a portion, and waited. The doors to the kitchen were at the far end of the large room in which we were dining. Our table was as far from the kitchen as was possible. Before the waiter re-entered the dining hall, a strong pungent odour could be sensed. The smell filled the entire dining hall. It was my cheese. Michael was horrified that first, I was prepared to try it, and then, second, that I liked it. Actually, I like most pungent cheeses. 

Pálpusztai is a cow’s milk cheese, which was first made by Pál Heller of the Derby és Vajtermelő Cheese Company in the 1890s. According to Wikipedia, the bacterium, Brevibacterium linens, that gives the cheese its odour is the same as that found on human skin, which contributes to body odour. Maybe, it was lucky I did not know that when I was looking at the menu at the Kárpátia!

Rice and meat

Hyderabad is justifiably renowned for tasty biryani although the very best version of this rice based dish that I have ever eaten was at Paragon in Calicut. There, they serve Moplah biryanis, which are both Arabic and Indian in taste.

The biryani we ate at the Café Bahar in Hyderabad was delicious. It was delicately flavoured and cooked with a light touch. To enter Bahar at lunchtime it is necessary to join a long queue that extends from the top of tje stairs at the doorway to the first floor dining room down on to the busy street outside. It is worth the wait.

The restaurant itself is very noisy and as busy as London’s Oxford Circus at rush hour. We shared a table with a charming couple, who let us try their ‘double masala’ chicken biryani which is richly laden with extra spices. I preferred the less spicy ‘special lamb biryani’. It is made special by adding hard boiled egg and meatballs made with minced chicken.

One should not visit Hyderabad without eating at least one biryani, but avoid the much advertised Paradise restaurant chain, which is ok but nothing like as good as Bahar or Shadab (near the Charminar)

Sighting the high Himalayas

TODAY, WE WERE LUCKY. When we awoke at about 630 am, the sky was almost cloudless. There was no mist. We headed for breakfast at Bakers Café on MG Marg. We took a table by a window with a view of the hills that face Gangtok. To our great delight, we could see the snow covered slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga far beyond the nearer hills. Even though the great peak was partially obscured by clouds, we had managed to see it at last. Until 1853, this mountain was believed to be the highest on the planet. More accurate surveying showed it to be the third highest, K2 also known as Chhogori.

After breakfast, we strolled along MG Marg and then its continuation, New Market. At the far end of the latter, the hitherto fully built up thoroughfare began to be punctuated with greenery, trees and other plants.

After a short ascent, we reached the Ropeway station. It is the halfway point of s cable car service that runs from a much higher station to a far lower one. Currently, the service only runs from the midway station to the lowest one. We boarded one of the two red cable cars to make the descent. Unlike other cable cars I have been on, each cable car has its own cable instead of being on a continuous loop. When the car reaches a station, its driving cable reverses its direction of motion.

The views during the descent are dramatic. The usually tall buildings of Gangtok appear to have been built on step like terraces cut into the sides of the steep slopes of the terrain on which the city is situated. The cable car glides high above a winding road along which an unending stream of small local taxis flows. Looking left and right the tree covered hills surrounding the city offer exciting vistas. The return journey, the ascent, was less dramatic, but enjoyable nevertheless.

We dawdled back the way we had approached the cable car station, enjoying the warm sunshine. Many people were walking around including a significant number of police men and women carrying lathis and short sticks. Wearing berets and dark blue uniforms, they appeared to be milling around casually and without seeming menacing. Every now and then, we saw porters carrying what looked like heavy loads. They wear a thick padded strap over their foreheads. These straps are attached to cords that are tied around what is being carried on the porters’ backs. As they walk, the porters incline their heads slightly forward. This kind of portering looks like a tough way of earning a living.

The shops on MG Mar were open, but those lining the steps leading down to Lal Bazaar were shuttered up, closed. In Gangtok some businesses close on Thursday and others on Saturday. Today, it is Thursday. Fortunately, the excellent, albeit somewhat scruffy, Potala Restaurant in Lal Bazaar was open. I enjoyed a good number of delicately flavoured delicious beef filled steam momos.

After lunch we visited the Organic Market, which is housed in a curved gallery, one of the floors of the so-called Super Market, which is not a supermarket but a multi-storey covered market. Next, we strolled along some of the elevated pedestrian walkways that run above the National Highway, the main thoroughfare of Gangtok.

Before returning to our hotel, we stopped in a small café for beverages. It had a range of breads and pastries that equalled that you would expect to find in large European cities. This was not an isolated example. Gangtok abounds with well stocked bakeries.

The temperature had begun to drop when we reached our hotel, where we sttled down for a siesta.

PS We were fortunate to sight Kanchenjunga on the 28th November, the anniversary of the independence of Albania. Sadly, that country had just experienced a terrible earthquake.

Check the toilet!

One of my cousins in France gave me a useful tip.

He said that clean toilet facilities are often associated with satisfying restaurants. What he meant was that if the restaurant’s management took care of small details such as the toilets, it was likely that they would take care over the more savoury aspects of the business such as the food and customer care.

Since I was given that tip, I have noticed that there is a remarkably high correlation between my degree of satisfaction with the restaurant and the state of their ‘loos’.

Just desserts

Art of gelato_240

Not long ago, we visited a restaurant. To save it from being emabarassed, I will not mention its name or location. On its dessert menu, it had the following item: “Mango”. This was described as coconut ice cream with mango sorbet, topped with a single raspberry, a lychee, and a fruit sauce. 

One of our party wanted to try the “Mango” as described on the menu. A friend and myself wanted, if possible, a scoop or two of mango sorbet without the other trimmings. We asked one waitress if it would be possible to have the sorbet on its own. She went away to consult, but never returned.

After a while we asked a waiter, who appeared not to be fluent in English, whether we could have the mango sorbet solo. We asked him several times. He kept on replying:

“Strawberry?”

He appeared not to be able to distinguish the word ‘strawberry’ from ‘sorbet’.

Not willing to give up, we called the manager to repeat our wish. He told us that he would speak to the chef. He returned quickly and assured us that our wish would be granted.

The desserts arrived. The person who ordered the “Mango” as described on the menu received a lump of mango sorbet fused to a lump of coconut ice cream. This was topped with a single raspberry and a piece of frozen kiwi fruit, but not a lychee in sight. This was covered with a sweet red fruit sauce.

Those who had sought mango sorbet on its own, my friend and I, received not plain mango sorbet, but a deconstructed version of what was on the menu. The mango sorbet was fused to the coconut ice cream, and the other ingredients, including the frozen kiwi piece, were neatly arranged around the inseparable icecream and sorbet. The sauce was placed in a small dish.

Two things occurred to me later. First, the restaurant only had the mango sorbet inseparably fused to the coconut ice cream. Secondly, the restaurant had no idea how much to charge us had we been served the ice cream/sorbet without the trimmings.

To compensate for the delay and confusion, the manager provided us with an extra portion of the “Mango” dessert ‘on the house’. That would have been kind had the unasked for extra portion not appeared on our bill!

 

Learning the lingo: Italian

aerial photography of city

 

Until I was 16 years old, I accompanied my parents on annual holidays in Florence (Italy). We always stayed at the Pensione Burchianti, which was run by two ageing sisters. Almost every evening, we ate dinner in a nearby restaurant (the Buca Mario). This excerpt from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME describes how I began to acquire some limited skill in speaking Italia. Here is the excerpt:

” … After dinner we would walk back to the Burchianti. It might have been during one of these evening strolls that my father came up with a new version of the saying ‘a penny for your thoughts’, namely: ‘a penne for your sauce’. The traffic in the streets would have quietened down by the time that we had eaten, and all of the traffic signals, or ‘robots’ as my South African parents called them, had flashing amber lights instead of the usual sequence of three coloured lamps. The pedestrian signals, which alternated between the red ‘Alt’ and the green ‘Avanti’ during the day, simply flashed both messages at the same time at night.

When we arrived back at the Burchianti, the residents, who had been eating supper, were usually still lingering at their tables. Many of them almost lived in the Burchianti. There was an elderly commendatore, who took all his meals there but slept elsewhere. There were also a number of business people who spent the week working in Florence, but resided some distance away in the weekend. They lived in the pensione during the week. One of these was a lady pharmacist from Parma who spoke Italian with a curious accent, rolling her ‘r’s in an exaggerated way.

On entering the dining room, we would be greeted like old friends, which I suppose we were. We would be invited to sit at the sisters’ table, and then I had to perform. One of the sisters would ask me in Italian what I had eaten for dinner, and I had to reply in Italian. Everyone listened to my reply which usually went something like this:
Primo piatto o mangiato spaghetti con pomodoro. Dopo o mangiato bistecca con patate fritte. E dopo, profiterole.”

It was not difficult to relate what I had eaten because every dinner I ordered the same thing or substituted lombatina di vitello (veal chop) for the bistecca. This nightly recitation gave me the confidence to try to speak in Italian, even if badly. When I did not know a word, I tried using a Latin word but pronounced it in a way that I believed made it sound Italian. Often, this worked! ...”

 

If you want to know whether Charlie Chaplin really did wave to me, grab a copy of my book from:

https://www.bookdepository.com/Charlie-Chaplin-Waved-Me-Adam-YAMEY/9781291845051

OR

http://www.lulu.com/shop/adam-yamey/charlie-chaplin-waved-to-me/paperback/product-21611544.html

OR Amazon or Kindle store

 

Photo by Josh Hild on Pexels.com

Keep it clean

close up of menu

 

We entered a popular Thai restaurant, part of a chain, in London’s West Hampstead and waited for our friends to arrive. As they were taking a long time to reach us, we ordered some prawn crackers to quell our pangs of hunger. They arrived quickly with, much to my surprise, a couple of gooey dipping sauces.

The rather unfriendly waitress who delivered our snack, pushed our cheaply produced paper menus aside and said with an abrupt tone of voice:

“Don’t dirty the menus with the sauces.”

I was surprised. Never before in over sixty years of eating regularly in restaurants all over the world have I been asked, nay ordered, to keep the menu clean. I felt that this order to maintain the integrity of the menus to be unwelcome, unfriendly, and impolite.

After eating a revoltingly over sweet meal, I told the waitress about my disgust at her extraordinary instruction when she delivered the prawn crackers. She seemed unfazed by my complaint. I will never ever enter that restaurant again! 

 

Photo by Terje Sollie on Pexels.com